Mochi, boba and fish balls. They can only be described as food that is Q. But what is Q, and why is it so popular in Asia? We go behind the science of what makes this such a well-loved texture.
Mochi, boba and fish balls — these snacks are a favorite among Asians, and a big reason is their texture. It’s soft, but also springy. Delicate, but also bouncy. It’s a characteristic hard to pin down, until the term “Q” emerged.
No one knows who invented the term or when it was created, but many believe that it originated from the Taiwanese Hokkien word k’iu, which means bendy and bouncy.
It’s hard to translate Q. Chewy is a poor definition that barely even begins to encapsulate what Q is.
“It’s chewy, but it’s not as chewy as beef steak. It’s elastic, but not as elastic as a [piece of] plastic,” says Professor Zhou Weibiao, a food scientist from the National University of Singapore. “And it gives you that sensation of enjoying it as you chew it in your mouth [while] it can be broken down relatively easily.”
For the past two decades, Prof Zhou has been studying how different textures in food affect the way people enjoy it.
He says that people enjoy food primarily because of two factors. The first is flavor, which comprises taste and aroma. The second factor is texture, whether it’s crispy, soft, smooth or firm — there are thousands of possible textures a piece of food can have.
Q, he says, is a fascinating topic for him. And after years of research, he’s come up with a definition.
A food that is Q must be reasonably elastic. Even after taking the first bite, the piece of food will still return to its original shape. And when it’s cut into smaller pieces, each of these pieces will still have the same texture as the bigger piece.
Prof Zhou adds that Q food has an “initial resistance to bite”. But the longer one chews the piece of food, the softer it gets, and more flavor is released, making the meatballs or dumplings seem even more delicious.
“Beef is chewy. Mochi is also chewy, but it is a different kind of chewiness.” says Prof Zhou, pointing out that while ‘Q’ foods are chewy, not all chewy foods are Q.
Q food is especially popular in East Asia also because rice is a staple food in the region. The grain contains starch and creates that sticky trait that’s common in this type of food.
“Starch has a property called gelatinization,” Prof Zhou says. After the ingredient that contains starch is cooked, it becomes a gel-like substance. “And that gel often gives you elasticity [which] is one of the key elements responsible for this Q texture.”